December 19 TN News Digest

This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.

Columnist: Difference in plan is responsibility (Knoxville News-Sentinel)

Christmas is still days away, but Gov. Bill Haslam made one conservative columnist very, very happy. Haslam has crafted what appears to be a conservative vision of health reform. My use of “health reform” is intentional. Had Haslam and the Tennessee Legislature merely expanded Medicaid like many wanted, Tennessee health outcomes would have been more of the same. What makes Insure Tennessee different, from what we know so far, is a simple, conservative concept — responsibility. More “free” insurance — actually insurance funded by taxpayers like the majority of this column’s readers — would do nothing to modify behaviors or change the unhealthy culture of our state.

Editorial: Governor’s health-insurance plan needs pragmatism (Daily News Journal)

Gov. Bill Haslam may have succeeded in “threading the needle” in regard to expansion of health-insurance coverage in Tennessee. The governor is eschewing the term “Medicaid expansion,” which is fine if the use of the term “Insure Tennessee” will allow it to win necessary approval of the Republican-controlled state Legislature. What is proposed is not simple expansion of the Medicaid program in Tennessee, TennCare, but rather use of federal dollars to leverage state and private funding to increase the number of Tennesseans who have health insurance. That expansion of coverage is the goal of those who have criticized Haslam for proceeding with expansion of Medicaid through the federal Affordable Care Act. Based on their initial reactions to the proposal, the governor apparently has ameliorated their concerns with his Insure Tennessee plan.

Haslam names Boyd to head economic development (Associated Press)

Gov. Bill Haslam has named former higher education adviser Randy Boyd to become his new commissioner of economic development. Boyd is the founder and CEO of Knoxville-based Radio Systems Corp., a privately owned maker of technology-based pet products like PetSafe and Invisible Fence. Boyd in 2009 co-founded tnAchieves, a nonprofit scholarship organization that has helped pay the full community college tuition for more than 10,000 high school graduates, and that became a model for Haslam’s free tuition program. In 2013, Boyd become a full-time unpaid adviser to Haslam on higher education initiatives, and helped develop the governor’s “Drive to 55” campaign to improve college graduation rates from 32 percent to 55 percent by the year 2025. Boyd succeeds Bill Hagerty, who announced he was stepping down last month.

Randy Boyd named as economic development head (Tennessean/Boucher)

In 1991, Randy Boyd started a business that sold invisible fencing and other pet products in Knoxville. Today the University of Tennessee alum’s business tops $350 million in sales annually, with more than 300 employees in the state and more than 600 worldwide. Boyd said that experience will be in a big benefit as he tries to recruit others to do business in Tennessee as the state’s new economic development chief. “I’m kind of eager for that part of my job,” Boyd said. Gov. Bill Haslam named Boyd, 55, the next commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development on Wednesday. The Knoxville Republican touted Boyd’s business acumen, but also the recent work he’s done for education in Tennessee.

Tennessee gets new economic development commissioner (Times Free-Press)

Tennessee’s new chief job recruiter is Randy Boyd, Gov. Bill Haslam announced today. A successful entrepreneur, Boyd, 55, will succeed current Economic and Community Development Bill Hagerty, who announced last month he was leaving the administration to return to the private sector. Boyd in 2013 was named as Haslam’s full-time, unpaid special advisor on higher education in 2013, where he focused on the governor’s “Drive to 55” initiative to increase the percentage of Tennesseans with college degrees from 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025. That work brought about Haslam’s “Tennessee Promise,” essentially guaranteeing free college for students attending two-year community colleges and technical schools by providing them “last dollar” scholarships and mentors.

Haslam names Randy Boyd as new ECD commissioner (C. Appeal/Veazey)

Gov. Bill Haslam has named Randy Boyd as the new commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. Boyd, 55, is the chairman of Radio Systems Corporation, which is headquartered in Knoxville. He has served as a special advisor to Haslam for higher education, spearheading Haslam’s “Drive to 55” initiative intended to increase the number of Tennesseans with college degrees or certificates to 55 percent by 2025. “Randy understands the importance of making sure that the business community and educators are working hand in hand to meet our workforce needs,” Haslam said in a news release making the announcement Thursday morning.

Boyd to lead state ECD department (Nashville Post)

Gov. Bill Haslam today announced Knoxville entrepreneur Randy Boyd has been named commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. Boyd, 55, replaces Bill Hagerty, who announced in mid-November he will step down and enter the private sector. The announcement comes one day after Haslam tapped Candice McQueen to serve as the state education commissioner (read more here). Boyd (pictured) is chairman of Radio Systems Corp., which he started in 1991. The Knoxville–headquartered entity has more than 650 associates worldwide with offices in seven countries, according to a release.

New ECD commissioner has West Tennessee connections (Jackson Sun)

Gov. Bill Haslam on Thursday named former higher education adviser Randy Boyd to become his new commissioner of economic development. Boyd is the founder and CEO of Knoxville-based Radio Systems Corp., a privately owned maker of technology-based pet products such as PetSafe and Invisible Fence. Boyd in 2009 co-founded tnAchieves, a nonprofit scholarship organization that has helped pay the full community college tuition for more than 10,000 high school graduates, and that became a model for Haslam’s free tuition program. In 2013, Boyd become a full-time unpaid adviser to Haslam on higher education initiatives, and helped develop the governor’s “Drive to 55” campaign to improve college graduation rates from 32 percent to 55 percent by the year 2025.

 Meet Tennessee’s New Economic Development Chief (WPLN-Radio Nashville)

The businessman who previously volunteered to spearhead a push to get more Tennesseans finishing college has now been named commissioner of the Economic and Community Development Department. Randy Boyd started Radio Systems Corporation in 1991, which is headquartered in Knoxville. The privately held company which markets pet products under brands like Invisible Fence and Pet Safe reports sales of more than $350 million annually, with operations in seven countries. “In case you’re wondering how a dog fence salesman gets this job,” Boyd said to a Nashville audience in 2013 while working on higher education issues, “you had to be totally unencumbered by knowledge of the subject.”

Nashville’s economic development pros react to state’s new ECD chief (NBJ)

Randy Boyd’s business background is a huge plus, Middle Tennessee economic development officials say. But his active role in workforce initiatives brings just as much to the table in his new role as the state’s lead corporate recruiter. Gov. Bill Haslam named Boyd his new Economic and Community Development commissioner Thursday morning, replacing Bill Hagerty come January. Boyd founded Knoxville-based Radio Systems Corp. in 1991. The firm employees more than 650 employees worldwide and makes pet supplies, including invisible fences and bark-control leashes, under its brand name PetSage. Boyd served as chairman and CEO.

Haslam praises HHS secretary for work to expand insurance (CA/Veazey)

Among the calls Gov. Bill Haslam took Nov. 4, the day he was re-elected governor by a wide margin against token opposition, was one from President Barack Obama. He offered his congratulations, and the conversation soon turned to a more substantive topic: Haslam’s months-long effort to reach a unique-to-Tennessee solution for accepting federal Medicaid dollars. “If this is a football game, we’re on the five yard line,” Haslam said he told the president. “Sometimes, that last five yards are the hardest. And we might need your help to get over the finish line.” Forty-one days later, Haslam got his touchdown. That was when the governor unveiled Insure Tennessee, an alternative to straight Medicaid expansion that could provide health insurance to up to 200,000 Tennesseans who don’t already have it.

Tennessee’s unemployment rate improves (Nashville Business Journal)

Tennessee’s unemployment rate improve to 6.8 percent in November, down from October’s revised rate of 7.1 percent. The national unemployment rate, meanwhile, was unchanged, at 5.8 percent. Over the past year, the state’s unemployment rate has fallen from 7.9 percent to 6.8 percent; in the same period, the national rate improved from 7 percent to 5.8 percent.

Tennessee’s unemployment rate drops in November (Tennessean/Barnes)

It’s a double-dose of economic good news for Tennesseans. As gas prices continue to drop, so does Tennessee’s unemployment rate, which fell to 6.8 percent in November. The state’s unemployment rate dropped from 7.1 percent to 6.8 percent in a month’s time but still is lagging behind the national rate of 5.8 percent, which remained unchanged over the past month. In October, Gov. Bill Haslam questioned why the state’s unemployment rate remains well above the national level when other statistics indicate the state’s jobs picture should be improving. Tennessee’s enduring jobless rate is coupled with sluggish revenue collections that have led the governor to have all state agencies prepare for up to 7 percent cuts in the upcoming budget year. The state’s total non-farm employment increased by 53,900 jobs over the past year.

Tennessee jobless rate drops to 6.8 percent (Chattanooga Times Free-Press)

Unemployment in Tennessee fell by three-tenths of a percent to 6.8 percent last month — the lowest jobless rate since June, the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development said today. Tennessee employers added 1,900 jobs in November, but Tennessee’s jobless rate last month was still a full percentage point higher than the U.S. rate of 5.8 percent. Over the past year, Tennessee employment has grown by 53,900 jobs with the biggest increases in professional and business services, trade, transportation, utilities and durable goods manufacturing. A year ago, 7.1 percent of Tennessee’s workforce was unemployed.

Woodland Hills youth center making improvements (Associated Press)

A troubled Middle Tennessee youth detention center has increased security and is making changes to its behavior-modification program in hopes of preventing future rioting and escapes, officials said Thursday. Reporters were invited to tour Woodland Hills in Nashville, where more than 30 teenagers escaped on Sept. 1. All were eventually recaptured. That escape was the first of three major problems at the facility in September. There also was a riot in the yard and another breakout in which 13 teens escaped. Since then, the center has used concrete to reinforce the bottom of the fence that surrounds the facility. Workers also have reinforced aluminum panels under the dormitory windows that the teens were able to kick out during the first escape, and covered both the panels and windows with mesh steel.

TDOT offers live streaming of traffic conditions (Associated Press)

The Tennessee Department of Transportation has launched live streaming of traffic conditions in the state’s four largest cities on its web and mobile app. The video on the TDOT SmartWay app will show video from cameras located in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga. The free app also includes information on accidents, construction and road conditions. It can also pinpoint the location of mobile users. Transportation Commissioner John Schroer says the app is a way to keep up with changing traffic conditions and to alert drivers to avoid congested areas or hazardous road conditions. The department reminds motorists not to use the app while driving.

UT and Y-12 celebrate, renew their partnership (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Munger)

The University of Tennessee and the Y-12 National Security Complex renewed their vows Thursday, promising to work together to help each other and accomplish things they can’t do apart. The result was a newly signed memorandum of understanding, an umbrella agreement for partnerships and projects, shared personnel appointments, educational opportunities, and a whole range of activities planned for the future. The university and the nuclear weapons plant have collaborated on programs and projects for at least 20 years, but Thursday’s ceremony was prompted, at least in part, by the change in leadership at the Oak Ridge plant.

Tennessee justices question relevancy in ID’ing executioners (Tenn/Barchenger)

For an hour Thursday afternoon, the five justices of the Tennessee Supreme Court peppered lawyers for both the state and a group of condemned inmates with questions. How are the names of executioners relevant in an ongoing constitutional challenge to the state’s death penalty protocol? Is releasing those names a public records issue, or does it deal with rules of court proceedings? What are the protections in place if those names are released to attorneys? What are constitutional alternatives to lethal injection? In the coming months, the Supreme Court will decide whether the names of the execution team and those who provide drugs used in lethal injection should be released on a limited basis.

State Rep. Brenda Gilmore gets environmental award (Associated Press)

State Rep. Brenda Gilmore is being recognized nationally for her environmental efforts in schools. The Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council announced this week that the Nashville Democrat is one of the 2014 “Best of Green Schools” recipients. The award recognizes 10 individuals, institutions, projects and events representing the best environmental efforts in schools across the country. Gilmore is being recognized in the policy maker category. During the last legislative session, Gilmore championed legislation that encourages school districts to utilize less toxic products and schedule all cleaning and maintenance at times that limit student and staff exposure to possibly harmful chemicals.

Sen. Alexander to return to four committees (News-Sentinel/Collins)

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander will return to the four committees on which he currently sits when the new GOP-led Congress convenes next year, his office announced Thursday. Alexander, a Maryville Republican, will sit again on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and is expected to become the panel’s chairman. Senate committee chairmen will be elected in January by members of the respective committees. The full conference of Republican senators also must approve the chairs. In addition, Alexander will return to the Senate Appropriations Committee, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.

States Execute Fewest Convicts in 20 Years, Report Finds (New York Times)

Executions in the United States fell to a 20-year low in 2014 as the public became more skeptical about the death penalty and several states botched the executions of condemned men, according to a report released Thursday. The annual study by the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes executions, found that 35 people had been put to death during 2014, down from a peak of 98 in 1999. In 2013, there were 39 executions nationwide. Seven people who had been sentenced to death by courts were exonerated by DNA and other evidence in 2014, including two half-brothers who had been on death row in North Carolina for 30 years.

TVA finishing up ash recovery (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Munger)

TVA is wrapping up its Kingston coal ash recovery project — doing general site cleanup, paving walking trails and preparing to turn over about 100 acres to Roane County next year for recreational purposes. As it nears the sixth anniversary of the Dec. 22, 2008, Kingston Fossil Plant ash spill, TVA officials met with reporters at the site Wednesday to recap what had been done. “Six years ago this coming Monday, millions of tons of wet coal ash slid from what used to be an impoundment behind me,” TVA President and CEO Bill Johnson told those gathered at an overlook of the area where the spill occurred. He noted that several days after that, his predecessor, Tom Kilgore, visited the site and promised that TVA would restore the community.

Plaintiffs want TVA tree rule to ‘stay gone’ (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Marcum)

TVA might have dropped its controversial “15-foot rule,” but homeowners suing TVA over its tree-cutting policy want to make sure it stays gone. So, they filed papers Tuesday in U.S. District Court to challenge a TVA motion to dismiss the lawsuit as moot. Instead, they want definitive rulings from the court on issues such as whether TVA’s 15-foot rule met a threshold that would have required an environmental-impact statement under federal law, and whether TVA could reinstate the rule. “There are too many unanswered questions,” said Vance Sherwood, a West Knoxville resident whose wife, Donna Sherwood, is one of the plaintiffs in the case.

Google delays decision on ultra-fast Internet service until next year (NBJ)

Nashville will have to wait until 2015 to know for certain if Google Fiber gigabit Internet is headed our way. Although the company had previously indicated a decision would be made by year’s end, a Thursday email from a spokesperson pushed back that deadline. “This year gigabit Internet has moved from idea to reality, as mayors and city leaders across America have stepped up and made high-speed broadband access a priority for their community. We’ve been working closely with Nashville to figure out how we could bring them Google Fiber, and we’re grateful for their vision, commitment and plain old hard work,” the company said in a statement.

Google Fiber news delayed (Nashville Post)

Ten months after adding Nashville to a list of 33 cities that could potentially host their much anticipated fiber network, Google officials on Thursday said they’re taking a step back. Since February, Metro officials have completed a checklist drawn up by Google that identifies infrastructure and city information to validate the company’s expansion plans. Three weeks ago, the tech giant applied for a franchise authority certificate in Tennessee, another good sign for Nashville. Today, however, Google released the following statement: “This year gigabit Internet has moved from idea to reality, as mayors and city leaders across America have stepped up and made high-speed broadband access a priority for their community. We’ve been working closely with Nashville to figure out how we could bring the city Google Fiber, and we’re grateful for the city’s vision, commitment, and plain old hard work. While we were hoping to have an update for cities before the holidays, we have a bit more work to wrap up; we’ll be back in touch sometime early next year.”

Nearly 500 to Lose Jobs in Shelby County (Memphis Daily News)

Nearly 500 employees in Shelby County will lose their jobs by next June, including 210 at Cargill Inc. and 84 at Delta Airlines, according to the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Roughly 210 Cargill Inc. employees will be out of work by June 30 as the company prepares to close down its Memphis corn mill on Presidents Island, according to the department’s December WARN list. The corn mill employed a total of about 449 workers. And 84 Delta employees will be out of a job Feb. 1, according to the WARN list. In November, Delta said it would eliminate nonstop service to Pittsburgh, Dallas/Fort Worth, Washington Reagan National Airport and New Orleans next year, a move that would cost 84 people their jobs. More job cuts could be on the way from Delta.

Erlanger to pay out bonuses in two phases, consider incentive plan (TFP/Belz)

Erlanger Health System officials will give 99 hospital managers half of $1.7 million in designated bonuses this month and the second half in July, hospital CEO Kevin Spiegel told employees in a memo Wednesday. The bonuses are tied to performance benchmarks that the public hospital’s board set earlier this year. But they have come under fire from local lawmakers and officials, who say the hospital had to tap a pool of federal money to end the year in the black. State lawmakers also criticized the board for meeting and discussing the bonuses privately before voting in a public meeting on Dec. 4 to award them. The state’s open records law says deliberations on public business must take place openly.




Editorial: State’s senators should have input on TVA’s board (News-Sentinel)

The recent Senate confirmation of two new directors for the Tennessee Valley Authority board settles one issue but brings up another. The issue settled is that of completing the appointments for TVA in a lame-duck session of Congress. The board members who were confirmed are Democrats and, given the politically charged atmosphere in Washington, it was not unthinkable that the Senate would postpone action until early next year, when there will be a Republican majority. The Senate’s rising above partisanship certainly can be attributable to Tennessee’s U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, both Republicans. On Dec. 9, the Senate voted 86-12 to confirm Ronald A. Walter, a Memphis television executive, and Virginia Lodge, a Nashville businesswoman and former commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Human Services under former Gov. Phil Bredesen.

Times Editorial: The chemistry we never want to think about needs thought (TFP)

East Tennessee got a scare last week when emergency officials were called to a chemical leak Tuesday at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, a campus that houses some of the world’s most dangerous materials. According to spokesperson Steven Wyatt, the spilled chemical was acetonitrile, a flammable solvent used in processing uranium for nuclear weapons maintenance. The chemical is not radioactive, but it is flammable and toxic — so flammable and toxic, in fact, that what Wyatt described as “a gallon or less” spill resulted in about 10 people working inside the purification facility to be evacuated as soon as an alerting sensor sounded. Then, for several hours afterward, the building was closed and monitored. No one was injured. Oak Ridge dodged a bullet — or rather a chemical catastrophe.